January 28, 2010

Requiem for Word RMR


The equivalent of Adobe Acrobat (and its many low-cost clones) is still waiting in the ebook wings. The Kindle now rules the roost, but while Mobipocket Creator can import Word files by doing a Word-to-HTML conversion, it doesn't consistently do a very good job of it.

It messes up chapter titles if you just use returns to create white space. (You have to create a style in Word that defines the white space instead.) The conversion utility won't center text vertically (as on a title page). And complex formatting such as lists will probably get scrambled.

To get the layout right, you really have to dig into the raw XHTML (which isn't all that difficult, but it does intimidate people and it takes more time than it should).

The Word RMR plug-in converts DOC files to Microsoft Reader LIT files from within Word (a button on the toolbar). It can't vertically center text either, but it handles lists and blockquotes better and interprets line returns correctly. It also justifies the same as in the original document.

Keep the formatting simple (after a chapter break, two returns, chapter header, two returns, body of text), and the Word RMR plug-in will create decent-looking LIT ebook from a Word document. (You still can't center vertically, so on the title page use a couple of returns instead.)

Alas, LIT is a largely orphaned standard. But even if you can't use it to produce commercial ebooks, you can use Word RMR and Microsoft Reader to quickly create clean-looking, "paperback-style" ebooks during the editorial process. It really does change the way you perceive the text.

With a better interface on the Reader side and support for formats such as MOBI, Microsoft could make Word RMR the one-click equivalent of Acrobat. Microsoft developed the best ebook text display engine but let the platform languish. It really needs to resurrect it and give it a second life.

The Word RMR plug-in was designed to work with Word 2000 and 2003. Word 2007 compatibility is not assured, but from what I've read it kinda mostly works.

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January 25, 2010

Oh yeah, we're baaad


Recently in the New York Times, David Brooks described Avatar as an illustration of the "White Messiah fable," a popular narrative formula in which

a manly young adventurer who goes into the wilderness in search of thrills and profit. But, once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization.

Somewhat in Cameron's defense, the Messiah and his "white man's burden" is a fairly universal trope. And not confined to white men. Its seeds germinate at the heart of any reactionary or revolutionary cause, especially those that can attract true believers with no actual skin in the game.

Its appeal is undeniable. In contrast to the monomyth hero formula that has a lowly beta catching a lucky break and making the most of it through sheer hard work (Rocky), being a Messiah vaults you to the top of the pecking order solely because of your inherent moral superiority. Because of who you are.

It helps if you're Kevin Costner or Tom Cruise.

This is the corrupting feudal apple in the primordeal Eden. Despite our equalitarian pretentions, we really do believe that some animals are more equal than others. Moral superiority requires no effort to possess. You need only announce its presence within you and hew to the proper political platform.

As I point out in my review of The Last Samurai--also cited by Brooks--this version of the "White Messiah" fable actually gets the audience to root against democracy and for an oppressive aristocracy. Saigo Takamori's rebellion was the early articulation of an imperialistic vision that led inexorably to WWII.

We ignore the obvious because identifying with the Tom Cruise character allows us to virtually zoom straight to alpha status without having to go through the grueling Darwinian guantlet demanded of the natives. (If they had the good luck of being born to the right parents, that is. Who cleans the latrines on Pandora?)

As Slate's David Edelstein observes, "Movies can manipulate you to root for just about anyone, anytime." So the deeper question is not just why it is so easy to root out our lurking aristocratic inclinations, but at the same time make us actually root against our own culture and the ones who brung us.

A big reason can be found in M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable (his last good film): without monsters, there's no need for monster killers. The two are complementary. The one rationalizes the other's existence, the good becoming only as good as the evil is evil. As Shakespeare's (not yet) King Richard puts it:

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain[.]

What makes Peter Parker the hero is not just his strength but his morality--"with great strength comes great responsibility." This is not a bad thing. In the information age, moral superiority is as telling an alpha marker as physical superiority. But again, without moral supervillains, moral superheroes are out of a job.

Except there just isn't enough easy-peasy supervillainry to go around. Unless the Luther family lives in town. It becomes necessary, then, to proselytize. To sully our names far and wide. Conveniently, the ideological causes that consign the west to the heart of darkness also vault us to the top of the food chain.

These "humble" convictions that posit the United States as the controlling variable in ruining everything--from the climate of the planet to war and peace everywhere on the earth to the survival of every species of life--make us all supervillains. Demi-gods. Masters of the universe. B-B-B-bad to the bone.

Not only that, but theatrical conspiracy theories from Three Days of the Condor to The X-Files to Enemy of the State are, despite themselves, celebrations of unbelievably efficient centralized government apparati found nowhere in nature (except in the Orientalist fantasies of Tom Friedman).

Americans are not alone in this. Apocalyptic Japanese SF fantasies such as Vexille, Akira and Evangelion are really about the Japanese destroying themselves because they're just so darned clever. Michael Crichton's Rising Sun is a similarly backhanded paean to superior Japanese wizardry.

We're great, which makes opposing ourselves even greater. There is no deeper fount of justification and self-righteousness than self-abnegation. The sinner sees the light and preaches reform. And just like in that old time religion, the man on the silver screen suffers for us, takes upon our sins, and redeems us.

That's what Messiahs are for. I mean, it's a whole lot easier than doing it ourselves. All that is required is to watch, agree, and applaud. Because living like those Rousseauan "noble savages" really lived would bore us out of our freaking skulls (if we managed to survive the first hard frost, that is).

Related posts

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January 21, 2010

Evolution of the Japanese toilet


Alan Macfarland, Emeritus Professor of Anthropological Science and a Life Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, discussed the evolution of the modern Japanese toilet in this brief but fascinating essay.

It's clear that in Japan, a fastidious attention to hygiene is a national trait that goes back centuries. It also makes me wonder how my European ancestors managed to survive (answer: a lot of them didn't).

To be fair, in the mid-19th century, as the populations of Japan's major cities exploded, so did the cholera epidemics, until the sewer systems were modernized (by a British engineer) to handle to flow.

Phonologically speaking, kahaya is pronounced kawaya. According to Daijisen, the original meaning of "river house" (川屋) evolved into "(house) next to the house" (側屋), which is close in meaning to "outhouse."

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January 18, 2010

Nanami Madobe


Microsoft created an avatar, wallpapers and sounds (by pop singer and voice actress Nana Mizuki) called "Nanami Madobe" (窓辺ななみ) for the Japanese Windows 7 rollout. Her first name can be read "beautiful seven" and her last means "by the window."

Nana Mizuki's first name (奈々) is also a homophone for "seven," but in this case is derived from the kanji for the ancient capital city of Nara. Still, a clever bit of casting.

These (previously) unofficial software mascots have been around for a while in Japan. They're called "OS-tan" (tan is a slang form of the diminutive suffix chan). But Nanami was developed internally and with a healthy budget, as Nana Mizuki is a star in her own right.


Alas, the U.S. Microsoft site doesn't mention her at all. I found a single reference on the Microsoft-Japan site. Even in Japan, Nanami Madobe is only available with the Windows 7 Ultimate edition.

For once, Microsoft has completely out-cuted Apple, but is doing its level best not to admit it. I mean, doesn't John Hodgman deserve a girlfriend? By gum, yes he does! (Sit-com possibilities abound.)



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"Get a Mac" fail
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January 14, 2010

Good books don't have to be hard


As if anticipating John Granger's "quest for depth" in Twilight, a few months back in the Wall Street Journal, Lev Grossman came to a similar conclusion. "A good story," he observes about the academic set, "is a dirty secret that we all share."

The Modernists felt little obligation to entertain their readers. That was just the price you paid for your Joycean epiphany. Conversely they have trained us, Pavlovianly, to associate a crisp, dynamic, exciting plot with supermarket fiction, and cheap thrills, and embarrassment. Plot was the coward's way out, for people who can't deal with the real world. If you're having too much fun, you're doing it wrong.

The old jibe about prissy moralists loathing the fact that "somebody, somewhere is having fun" ironically applies to the kind of people who first coined it. If anything, Granger may be trying to hard to avoid the obvious: the people who like Twilight like it because it "doesn't bore them."

Not because there's more there than meets the eye. But because what meets the eye is precisely everything that's there.

The deconstructionists got one thing right, though: what the reader chooses to get out of the text is out of the author's control. But if we've got to go spelunking for meaning, we might well be the only ones who find it. Which is sort of an accomplishment, I suppose. As my sister puts it:

[A]lthough folklore fascinates me all by itself, finding itty-bitty folkloric symbols in stories just doesn't. It never has. I'm all about formal criticism, but I think the story matters more than the itty-bitty symbols (and that kind of analysis always strikes me as rather desperate).

Like mountain climbers, we analyze and critique for the existential joy of the effort. Because it's there. We set up hurdles and preen about jumping over them. Some people find this entertaining. I do. But we shouldn't assume that we're making the world better, even if we are for the mental exercise.

Unless we can tell a cracking good story in the process.

Related posts

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January 11, 2010

Blame it on the woman!


The bad girl in Yashakiden is a four-thousand year old vampire from China. "Princess" was the favorite concubine of Emperor Zhou (the "Chinese Caligula"), the last, doomed ruler of the Shang (or Yin) Dynasty. Her wanton ways led to the destruction of dynasty.

Kikuchi based this depraved lust-bunny on an historical character named Daji. The Wikipedia entry covers the material cited in the book. The Wikipedia writers (Japanese and English) and Kikuchi were clearly working from similar source material (the novel predates Wikipedia).

Pretty disgusting stuff. Curiously (or not), the fall of the Hsia (Xia), Shang and Zhou dynasties, covering a period spanning over 1500 years, are all blamed on amorous she-devils (Moxi, Daji and Baosi) seducing the emperor, who was supposedly a stand-up guy until she showed up!

Kikuchi makes them all the same person, and weaves into the mix an Indian crown prince and the story of Tamamo no Mae and the nine-tailed fox. (In Japanese folklore, the fox is usually a wily trickster, a slick Dean Martin often paired with a Jerry Lewis tanuki for comic relief.)

And speaking of blaming the woman, the best Sunday school lesson ever.

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January 07, 2010

The Phantom Menace


Speaking of The Phantom Menace, I wrote this review way back in 1999 when it first came out (watching this movie in a theater is one of the reasons I don't fork out the big bucks to see movies in theaters anymore). Here it is in all its original contempt [with a few added parentheticals].

The theater I attended, a weekend showing at one in the afternoon, was packed. The only way a film can score blockbuster ticket sales is by repeat viewings. But why would anybody see this movie more than once? A movie so full of lousy directing and lousy scripting and lousy acting and unfulfilled promise that it left me depressed. Movies don't often leave me depressed. Maybe annoyed, but not depressed.

Let's start with the premise. What premise? How can you begin an entire series with a premise so murky you need five minutes of written exposition to not explain it? Come to think of it, I'd have a hard time explaining why anything in this movie happens the way it does. What's with Darth Maul, for example? Why does the character exist? What's the point of killing off Liam Neeson, other than because he wasn't scripted into the sequel? If they wanted to dispose of the Jedi Knights, why not just blow up the whole pompous bunch and their whole pompous council? Getting rid of that horrid excuse for bad acting and pretentious dialog (and those "highways in the sky" vistas that look like 50-year-old Popular Mechanics covers) would have improved things immeasurable.

My brother points out that the Jedi Knights would make better sense if, like the samurai, they were attached to particular lords or rulers [that is exactly the premise of My Otome Hime]. In medieval Japan, martial arts schools instructed samurai according to certain rules of combat and religious philosophy, and these schools competed with each other for students, prestige, and the good favor of the ruling elite. Lucas does credit Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress for inspiring the original Star Wars. If he got too big to steal good ideas, then he should go back to shamelessly copying them.

The insipid dialog is, frankly, far more bothersome than the mediocre acting. I guess there was no one on the set brave enough to say, as Harrison Ford reportedly did, "You can write this crap, George, but you can't make us say it." Camille Paglia is right on this point: contemporary movies makers don't know when to stop a scene--they just run on and on and on. The point of editing is to give the director and actors less time to embarrass themselves. In this movie, they're given all the time in the world.

And at the same time, let's get rid of most of the aliens, okay? Digital or not, they end up looking like so many Muppets after a while (repeat after me: Yoda, Fozzy Bear, Yoda, Fozzy Bear). I didn't find Jar Jar Binks as racist a character as described by some critics (he's too incomprehensible to pin on any racial group), but nevertheless utterly annoying. And that was after thirty seconds. After five minutes I'd prefer fingernails scraping on a blackboard. If you're looking for racist overtones, I'd pick the evil federation traders, who sound like extras from a Charlie Chan flick, and Anikin's slave master, who sounds (and acts, wings notwithstanding) like a Brooklyn Shylock direct from the Stereotypes Casting Agency.

Even more despicable is the sentimental gimmick that ruined Return of the Jedi and has been recycled here (along with a story climax that's been used in three out of four films--George, please, think of another way to end a movie!). That is, making war into comic relief. Now, I'm not against war and comedy rubbing shoulders. I'm fine with the "war is hell but a lot of fun to watch" genre. I'm fine with dark Black Adder-type Strangelovian satires. But trying to make war cute and cuddly is loathsome. Barely-armed aliens of any sort going up against tanks will get mowed down like so much cannon fodder [Avatar being the latest incarnation of this absurdly Luddite fairy tale]. There's nothing entertaining about this that I can see, no matter how cute the combatants are.

And why can't any of these futuristic societies design anything at least as effective as a cruise missile? [A Predator drone? How about a MIRVed JDAM?] C'mon, a force field that deflects exploding shells, but that you can just walk through? Armed droids that couldn't hit the broad side of a barn (from inside the barn) and break apart like fine china? In the future (that is, the "future" that is the original Star Wars), they chuck the droids and go back to using human soldiers in body armor. Well, no kidding.

Irksome political correctness: the queen, we are told, was "elected." An elected queen? What kind of an oxymoron is that? If they "elected" a guy, would he have to dress up in those goofy outfits? I liked the goofy outfits (shades of Shinto ceremonial garb), but they belonged on a hereditary monarch. And I liked Portman--she's the only thing that really shines in this movie (and her SR-71 spaceship is a real gem, I'll give them that). But as with Neeson she has nothing to act against or with. No internal conflict. Nothing to stir the soul. Not a single human relationship is created in this movie that is worth caring about.

The Phantom Menace proves the epigram, "It's the pictures that got small." For all the extravagant locations and special effects, it impresses only the left side of the brain. It's otherwise a small movie, it looks small, it feels small.

Star Wars, with its limited cast and limited sets, and as clunky as it is in parts, has a big heart and an expansive vision. Even on TV, its vistas appear broad and unending. Through the eyes of Luke Skywalker we see a frontier beckoning to "go west (or up), young man," while Han Solo bets you that the universe can be conquered with sheer verve and boldness, politics be damned. But the eyes in The Phantom Menace are jaded and dull. They don't see anything worth looking at, including, mostly, each other.

What surprised me the most was the movie's literary emptiness. Lucas cops out every step along the way. He's got Joseph Campbell on the brain, and seems to think that dropping in a mythic allusion here and there qualifies as "depth." There's no subtlety, no foreshadowing. I really expected the kid to do something that would in some way reveal a kind of inner corruption. A touch of darkness, a shadow on the soul. Something. Anything. But nada. Publicity posters tell us that Anikin turns into Darth Vader. Yoda tells us that the boy "troubles" him. We're all but told who the "Emperor" is, just in case we're too stupid to figure it out. The entire movie is Exhibit A when it comes to explaining what "Show, don't tell" means.

Now, I can conjure up reasons why, say, Darth Maul does what he does--pretty obvious reasons, I think--but that would require people knowing and doing things that are never shown or even hinted at. Still, there's reason to hope. We ex-Trekkies grew up kindling eternal hope. Hey, this episode reeks, maybe the next one won't. And even if the next one does, surely the one after won't. We keep on doubling down. So Lucas got Star Wars I right (yes, it's "I," no matter what numbering system he's come up with since), and it went downhill from there. But maybe after cranking out this stinker, he'll figure out what he really wants to do and things will improve with the sequels.

[They didn't.]

Related posts

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January 04, 2010

McKee meets the "Menace"


"Some guy named Mike from Milwaukee, Wisconsin" deconstructs The Phantom Menace in seven YouTube videos (produced by Red Letter Media). And when I say "deconstructed," I mean he takes it apart and reduces it to artistic rubble.

As my brother notes, the criticism is so relentless that adopting the brain-damaged persona of Larry Flynt-meets-sociopathic fanboy (imagine Anthony Perkins from Psycho teaching a course in film criticism) makes it easier to digest the punishment he dishes out.

Even more unexpected, the incongruous psycho-killer segments add up to a story in the story that pays off at the end (if you enjoy very black humor). And though the seven-part series is edited to suggest an amateurish effort, it is expertly produced and written.

Star Trek producer Damon Lindelof reportedly calls it "astounding film making." He's not being hyperbolic.

I think the narrator is Robert McKee in disguise. Okay, not seriously. But after describing the hero in the monomyth story structure, he then lists directors capable of telling stories without following it. He could just as well be reading straight from McKee's Story.

And when he attempts to psychoanalyze how Lucas consciously created something so awful, he qualifies his observations in ways that you wouldn't expect from a disgruntled fan. But in ways you would expect from an objective critic.

In any case, if you don't want to wade through McKee's Story, set aside seventy minutes (first send the children out of the room) and watch of all the main ideas systematically illustrated here instead.

Related posts

Attack of the Clones
The Force Awakens
The Phantom Menace

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